Introduction to verbs in Japanese

If you want to say something in a language you need a verb in most cases and in Japanese how the verb is conjugated can change a lot depending on the verb and its use. Verbs in Japanese are not necessarily difficult to learn, once you get the hang of it, but getting to that point can take a while. In the following article you get a summarized account on how Japanese verbs work. First, a few main lessons:

  • The main verb in a Japanese sentence comes last
  • Verbs can further be grouped together in two main groups: regular conjugating verbs and irregular conjugating verbs
  • The regular conjugating verbs are further separated in る-verbs and う-verbs
  • A verb has a formal form and an informal shorter form

    The main verb always comes last in Japanese 

    First things first, one thing you have to learn is that the main verb of a sentence always comes at the end. It can be followed by particles, but in respect to the other grammatical parts of a sentence the main verb comes last. This is counterintuitive for English speakers and most speakers of Western languages, but after a while you get the hang of it.

    Regular conjugating verbs in Japanese come in two flavors: る-verbs and う-verbs

    As in other languages some Japanese verbs conjugate to a regular pattern while others conjugate irregularly. The regular conjugating verbs come in roughly two flavors, る-verbs and う-verbs, or  いちだん and ごだん verbs as they are officialy called. The difference between the two groups is that they conjugate differently.

    But then how can you tell which verb is which? Well, as the name implies, る verbs always have the hiragana character る as an ending. All the verbs with another hiragana character at the end are う verbs. Simple enough right? But wait, there is one catch, some verbs that end with a る are in reality う verbs. For example かえる (to return) is in reality a う verb. There is no definitive rule to tell if these verbs are really る verbs or う verbs. You simply have to learn them, but there is a rule that is correct in 95 per cent of the cases: 

    • If the last hiragana before the る is an い or え, it is a る verb. 

    Ok, that’s pretty clear. But the people paying attention might have noticed already. What about かえる?? This has an え as the last hiragana character before the る but is still an う verb. Yeah, so this is the 5 per cent. You just have to learn these. As for the irregular verbs, there are two important irregular verbs you have to learn and a lot of the other irregular verbs are a  combination of a noun and する, like べんきょうする (To study), so once you learn how to conjugate する, you will have come a long way. 

    Japanese verbs have a formal ます-form and informal short dictionary form 

    Furthermore, you may have read how the Japanese have a thoroughly developed culture of showing respect and this is something that is expressed among other things in verb conjugation. When trying to be polite you use the so called ます-form while you can use ‘short form’ when talking to peers. In this lesson we will be only conjugating to the polite ます-form. 

    Conjugating る-verbs 

    The name of る-verbs (いちだん) is derived from the last hiragana character, the る. First, when you start conjugating a verb you always start with the dictionary form. This is the standard form in which you learn verbs and in this form the verb always end with a う. A few examples are:

      たべる = To eat
      きる = To wear
      でる = To go out
      みる = To look

    To put this verb in the polite ます-form you do the following:

      1: Remove the last る  
      2: Put ます where you removed る  

    Let’s perform this operation on たべる. Take the る and replace it with ます you get たべます. And that’s it, now you have the polite form of たべる. That wasn’t so hard, was it? But what if you want to say something about the past or what if you didn’t eat.

      Present = Remove る add ます  
      Past Positive = Remove る add ました  
      Present negative = Remove る add ません  
      Past negative = Remove る add ませんでした  

    In the table below you can see how you can conjugate further from たべます to get the past tense and a negative. 

      Present Past
    Positive たべます たべました
      I eat  I ate
    Negative たべません たべませんでした
      I do not eat I did not eat

    So now you can not only say you are eating something, but also that you ate something in the past. Some quick examples: 

      すし を たべました  
      I ate sushi  
      すし =   Sushi  
      げつようび に にく を たべません でした. さかな を たべました
      I did not eat meat on Monday. I ate fish.   
      げつようび =   Sushi  
      にく  =   Meat   
      さかな =   Fish   

    Conjugating う-verbs

    う-verbs differ from る-verbs in their ending. You can see the difference in the examples below. 

      のむ = To drink
      さく = To bloom (as in flowers)
      かう = To buy
      よぶ = To call
      しぬ = To die

    The conjugation pattern of these verbs also changes. To put う-verbs in the ます-form you change the last hiragana-character into its い equivalent. For a quick recap, you can find the hiragana-chart here

      Step 1   :  Remove the う
      Step 2 :  Add います

    So if you implement this on the う-verbs above you get this: 

    のむ (to drink) Present Past
    Positive のみます のみました
      I drink I drank
    Negative のみません のみませんでした
      I don’t drink I did not drink
    さく (to bloom) Present Past
    Positive さきます さきました
      It blooms It bloomed
    Negative さきません さきませんでした
      It does not bloom It did not bloom
    かう (to buy) Present Past
    Positive かいます かいました
      I buy I bought
    Negative かいません かいませんでした
      I do not buy I did not bought

    You can see the pattern right. The last う changes to an い, but for the rest the conjugation is more or less similar.  

    Some る-verbs conjugate like う-verbs 

    Until now the rules were pretty clear right? Now comes the tricky part. Some verbs that have the ending る are not る-verbs at all, but actually う-verbs, and they conjugate like う-verbs. An example is とる (to take). This verb has a る-ending but it conjugates like a う-verb, so the ます-form is とります. 

    So how do you make the difference? I’m sorry to say there is no definitive rule, but in 95 per cent of the cases these fake る-verbs have a different vowel before the end. If this vowel is a,o or u, in all the cases the verb is a う verb. For example, these…. 

      わかる = To understand
      つくる = To make
      とる = To take
      おどる = To dance

     …are all う verbs with a る ending. One exception is the verb かえる (to come home). The above rule will help you in most cases but do expect to be surprised sometimes. 

    Irregular verbs する and くる

    There are a lot of irregular verbs, but good news, most of them conjugate the same. The most important irregular Japanese verbs are する (to do) and くる (to come). A lot of the other irregular verbs are a combination of a noun and する or くる so if know how to conjugate these, you know a lot. 

    する (to do) Present Past
    Positive します しました
      I do, I will do I did
    Negative しません しませんでした
      I do not, I will not do I did not
    くる (to come) Present Past
    Positive きます きました
      I come, I will come I came
    Negative きません きませんでした
      I do not come, I will not come I did not come